Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Jamie Fraser Eats an Apple: Using Objects to Inject Character and World-Building into Dialogue

By Lisa Lowe Stauffer, @LisaLStauffer

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: What’s in a scene is more than just stage dressing and props. It can be an opportunity to show your characters and the world they live in. Lisa Lowe Stauffer visits the lecture hall today with tips on how to do just that.

Lisa Lowe Stauffer, author of Two By Two (Zonderkidz, 2018) eagerly anticipates the release of the next book in the Outlander series. In the meantime, she stays busy writing books for children and teens, volunteering with SCBWI as the Assistant Regional Adviser to Southern Breeze region, and traveling with her own red-headed husband.

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Take it away Lisa…

Lisa Lowe Stauffer
I’m obsessed with the Outlander series. But I write for children and teens, so it wasn’t until my second (or third) read that I realized author Diana Gabaldon uses a technique I could bring to my own writing.

By incorporating objects into dialogue, Gabaldon dives deep into her characters’ emotions, relationship, social status, environment, and more.

In honor of Outlander, I’m calling this the Jamie-Fraser-eats-an-apple technique.

Here’s the excerpt that gave me my “aha!” moment.

Jamie and Claire discuss their nephew and his wife. (spoiler alert!) From Written in my Own Heart’s Blood, by Diana Gabaldon.
“Ian says he and Rachel will come up tomorrow to help,” Jamie said at last, thriftily eating his apple core. “Are ye going to eat yours, Sassenach?”

“No,” I said, handing it over. “Apple seeds have cyanide in them, you know.”

“Will it kill me?”

“It hasn’t so far.”

“Good.” He pulled off the stem and ate the core. “Have they settled on a name for the wee lad yet?”
By focusing on the apple core during the dialogue, Gabaldon immerses us into Claire and Jamie’s teasing relationship, how Jamie wasted no food, and Claire’s 20th-century-scientific knowledge. It accomplished a lot in 70 words!

If you want to immerse your readers, like Gabaldon does, utilizing the Jamie-Fraser-eats-an-apple technique requires you to answer three questions. We’ll walk through each one, using an excerpt from my work-in-progress, a YA novel.

#1—Plot—What does this dialogue need to accomplish?

Mira, my teenage protagonist, who is personal assistant to a Hollywood superstar, wants to ask her boss for tomorrow off. This effort will fail.

#2—Characters—Who will speak?

Mira and her boss (Cheyanne)

(I also know what’s coming—Mira and Cheyanne will soon separate for most of the story, so I need to use this opportunity to set up their relationship and personalities. That makes it perfect for the Jamie-Fraser-eats-an-apple technique.)

3: Setting—Where’s the best place for this dialogue to happen? What “objects” (including secondary characters and animals) would you find there?

Mira could talk to her boss by phone, stop her in the hallway, or even follow her upstairs, however, since Mira’s looking after Cheyanne’s three small children on this day, it seems organic to set it in the kitchen. I know when my children were small, it felt like I lived in the kitchen!

“Objects” I might find in the kitchen include various food items, the appliances/counters/cabinets, a rug, the children, the dog, the back door.

So, to recap: for my scene I need a question that won’t get an answer, a teen and her Hollywood star boss, a kitchen, and a busy household with small children and a dog. Here we go:
"Hello, my punkins!" Cheyanne scoops up Josi and gives her cheek a smacky kiss. "Mama was very proud of you this morning."

I nod at the steaming mug of super-green tea and the heaping bowl of melon balls. "I've made you some lunch. I know it’s your fruit-only day.”

"Thanks," Cheyanne puts Josi down and heads to the stairs. “But I'm doing a cleanse instead and squeezing in a workout before the party."

“Wait, I have to ask—"

Don, Cheyanne’s musclebound, ponytailed personal trainer strides through the back door into the kitchen.

At the same time Hakim and Kafa rush in from the living room, their dog Mac behind them. “Wait till you see—” Kafa squeals. “Mac! Attack!”

The blonde spaniel lunges at Don, growling and baring his teeth, but he’s not serious—his tail is a wagging blur.

“Whoa,” Don puts up his hands, smiling.

Mac drops to the floor and rolls over for Don to rub his belly.

Hakim and Kafa high-five. It’s the first time Mac’s responded to the attack command for them. Well, mostly responded. The wagging tail and rollover-for-a-belly-rub aren’t part of “attack.”

“Mac, you are rock!” Hakim adds.

“I think it’s ‘you’re a rocker?’” I get lost for a second trying to get the phrase right—rock like a boat . . . rock-a-bye-baby . . . rock music. That’s it!

“It’s ‘you rock’!” I tell Hakim, then turn to look for Cheyanne.

But she’s already disappeared upstairs.
Let’s break this passage down.

#1: Plot: Did Mira succeed in asking for tomorrow off?

No, which was the scene’s goal.

#2: Characters: Do we know more about the characters’ personalities and relationships?

Cheyanne is lovey-dovey with her children (in small doses) but isn’t really paying attention to them. She’s polite but entitled when it comes to all Mira does for her. Mira is a planner, anticipating her boss’s needs and preferences (melon, super-green tea). But Mira is easily distracted by the children—reflecting her love for them. Plus, as long as child- and dog-driven confusion was happening, this became an opportunity to plant the dog’s partial response to the attack command, which will be important later.

#3: Setting: Does the setting with its objects work? 

The cozy-sounding mug of tea and bowl of melon show Mira’s thoughtfulness. It also shows Cheyanne’s strict diet, which leads Mira later to comment on how weird Hollywood is about food, in contrast to what she experienced growing up in an orphanage. The kids’ activity and confusion gives a glimpse of Mira’s everyday work life.

Not bad for 248 words.

So next time your characters are talking, consider whether it’s an opportunity to slow the reader down and immerse him or her in your world and characters by incorporating objects.

After all, when Jamie Fraser picks up an apple, he may eat it himself, feed it to a nearby horse, or offer it to Claire, but one thing’s certain. He doesn’t waste a single bite. Likewise the Jamie-Fraser-eats-an-apple technique will help ensure your dialogue doesn’t waste a single bite either.

About Two By Two

Join in as the animals rock the boat on Noah’s Ark in Two by Two! This playful, rhyming story is sure to have little ones laughing and dancing along as two mischievous monkeys let loose the zoo aboard the ship. From anaconda limbo to penguin tap dances, the monkeys revel their way through the rain, making Two by Two a lyrical treat for the whole family to enjoy. With a rollicking rhyme from author Lisa Lowe Stauffer and engaging illustrations by Angelika Scudamore, this padded board book will soon become a favorite for bedtime and anytime.

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  1. Jeffrey Smith6/18/2019 11:45 AM

    Being overweight, I've noticed that when an overweight person is on TV or in a movie, they almost always have the person eating. And eating. And eating. Every scene and never a salad. It's a shame the writers don't have more imagination than that. To see an overweight person as a human being rather than an eating machine and being the butt of comments and jokes both directly and indirectly.

  2. Oh, that Jamie Fraser and Gabaldon's expertise at working a scene! Love this insight, Lisa. I have a tendency to be a little self-indulgent with my dialogue and this is another reminder that the dialogue needs to serve a purpose. Thanks!

  3. I'm not a follower of the Outlander series BUT I found this technique very interesting and easy to understand. I think I will pull out one of my early middle grade manuscripts and rework the dialogue keeping this in mind! Love learning new stuff!!!

  4. Great piece and two wonderful examples to bring home your point!